FRANCE IN THE 16th AND 17th
[Partly edited and reorganized,
1/17/04 and 9/23/11. Note that this is frustrating material for
me because I have to take long and fascinating stories and make them
short and dull. The stories of many of these figures make for
great reading. Alexander Dumas, for instance, drew on the history
of this era for his Three Musketeers series. Wonderful books,
often turned into pretty decent movies. Well worth your time.]
The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of tremendously
Change is always difficult, especially when changes come too
The Thirty Years' War is one example of the kind of conflicts one might
have in trying to cope with too-rapid change. But it wasn't just
the Holy Roman Empire that
had problems. Virtually all countries in Europe struggled in one
way or another in trying to cope with the changes coming about in the
16th and 17th
centuries. France, for instance, had the same kinds of problems
the rest of Europe: political, social and economic tension made worse
religious division. Even competent rulers and officials had
governing France at this time.
Like the rest of Europe, France had to deal with rapid
inflation and falling
real wages brought on by the influx of New World gold. Also,
had a special problem with taxation. The French kings relied on
farmers who put in their own pockets any "extra" money collected.
Only 25% of the money collected got to the king! This meant high
taxes, but not enough revenue for the king to do his job properly.
As in many other countries in Europe, 16th and 17th
century France had a rising middle class unhappy
because it had no political say and nobles unhappy because they had
some of their power and authority. Either group might be tempted
to lead or at least participate in a civil
Also, similar to much of the rest of Europe, France was
troubled by religious division. France at one time had been
united by its allegiance
to Roman Catholicism, but in the 16th century, John Calvin's teachings
began to spread widely.
Many of the friars, disgusted with the spectacle of wealthy higher
church officials who had no spiritual vocation at all, converted to
Calvinism and worked to spread the new movement. Many
bourgeoise types, perhaps eyeing the wealth of the church which was
being so badly misused, likewise converted to the Calvinist
And many nobles converted, some because they
thought Calvin right, others because Calvinism was a convenient excuse
for resisting the growing power of the Catholic kings of France. These
tensions led to French Wars of Religion (1562-1589).
Once started the wars were difficult to
There was a lull in the fighting in 1572, and King Charles IX wanted to
peace. He arranged a marriage between his sister, Margaret of
Valois, and Henry of
a leader of the Calvinists. The wedding was to be held in Paris
St. Bartholemew’s Day. Charles advisors
told him he couldn't trust
and persuaded him to give the order (which he later regretted greatly)
to kill all the Calvinist nobles who had come up to Paris for the
and were not prepared to offer much resistence.
Word spread that it was acceptable to kill Calvinists, so people used
the occasion to settle all sorts of private disputes. Debtors
killed Calvinist creditors. Rejected suitors killed Calvinists
who had turned them down. Students killed Calvinist teachers
(e.g., Petrus Ramus!). Thirteen thousand people were killed
during the "Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre," and the wars of
continued.Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism to save his life,
but then decided he was a Calvinist after all and, gathering his forces
together, led Calvinists to victory after victory. By 1589, he
held all France except Paris. He converted to Catholicism again
(!) so that Parisians would accept them as their king and he wouldn't
have to destroy the city in order to include it in his dominions.
The undisputed king of all France, from here on out we call him King
Henry IV (1589-1610)
Henry was, for the most part, a very successful king. His
military victories meant that he had the nobles under his
control. Also, he
hard at economic development and encouraged trade (settling French
Canada and sponsoring the
fur trade). He drained swamps for more cultivated land. He
also was truly concerned with peasants, promising "a chicken in every
pot every Sunday." He adopted a wise religious
issuing the Edict of Nantes which made France Catholic (and prohibited
near Paris) but allowed Calvinists to practice their religion openly
and gave them control of certain fortified cities.
Henry was hated by extreme Catholics and
In 1610, a Catholic extremist got to him. Henry's carriage got
and one of his opponents stabbed him to death. Henry left as his
heir a 9-year old son--Louis XIII.
[This is one of the
many places I have to skip over a long and fascinating story.
Henry had had a stormy relationship with his Margaret of Valois.
Ultimately, that marriage was annulled (c. 1599), and Henry married
Marie de' Medici while Margaret kept the title queen. Margaret
apparently was a partial inspiration for Shakespeare's Love's Labors
Lost and for a novel written by Dumas.]
For a time, Henry's wife, Marie de'Medici, ruled as regent for her
son. She was a good diplomat, averting a pending war with
Spain. She picked good administrators (e.g., Concini and
Cardinal Richelieu). But the nobles didn't want her to
succeed, and undermined her, using the fact that she was foreign and a
woman to stir up trouble. They also egged on Louis to oppose his
mother--not too hard since the King of France was whipped at his
mother's orders well into his teen years!
The division in the royal family was exactly what the nobles wanted,
weakening royal authority and letting them run things as the
liked. Eventually, Louis’ supporters drove Marie into exile and
killed some of her administrators (including Concini).
Things were not easy for Louis. His mother desperately
wanted to return to a position of power and influence, and Louis had to
twice put down revolts led by his brother. But Cardinal
Richelieu, intially a supporter of Marie but a man who, for the good of
France, transferred his support ot Louis, brought about a
Louis and Marie and worked in other ways to increase Louis'
power. Together, Richelieu and Louis were a formidable team, and
France becomes Europe's strongest country militarily and
economically. The Thirty Years' War is one example of their
success. Although a high church official, Cardinal Richelieu encouraged
Louis to support the Protestant side in the Thirty Years' War--and this
policy paid off. The weakening of Hapsburg power left France the
strongest power in Europe.
Louis and Richelieu were, however, rather tough on peasants.
Richelieu felt peasants were like donkeys: they got spoiled if you
didn't give them enough work. Richelieu died in 1642, Louis in 1643,
and this presented a bit of difficulty. Who would continue their
policies? Louis' heir was his 5 year old son, Louis
XIV--obviously, a boy not old enough to reign.
Anne of Austria
Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, ended up ruling as regent for her
son. She was a decent ruler, helped by Cardinal Mazarin. Her
ability to play the political game is illustrated by her ability to
become regent in the first place. Her husband hadn't wanted this to
happen: he didn't like Anne, and suspected her of cheating on
him. Perhaps Louis XIV wasn't even his son. But Anne played
her cards right, and ended up, for a time, as the de facto ruler of
But Anne faced all sorts of problems with the nobles. They used
against her the fact that she was female, a foreigner, and a
Hapsburg. Eventually, riots (the Fronde) drove her out of Paris,
and some of her officials were killed. And the nobles once again
had what they wanted.
However, when Louis XIV finally took over as king in fact as well as in
name, he figured out how to deal with nobles. He constructed a
magnificent palace at Versailles, and if a noble wanted a favor from
Louis, they absolutely had to come to Versailles. There ended up
hundreds of nobles living at Versailles, all looking for any
opportunity they could find to get Louis' attention. And, of course,
while they are doint that, they aren’t plotting against him.
Nobles are dangerous on their own estates where they can cook up plots
right and left. But, at Versailles, the nobles end up spying on
each other so that they can gain an excuse to tell Louis they have
important information for him--and so that they can have the
opportunity to ask whatever particular favor they want the king to
Meanwhile, Louis turns to the middle class types to actually administer
the country--often getting more competent officials as a result.
By the end of his reign, France is more powerful and wealthier than
ever before. 80% of tax revenue gets where its supposed to
But there is a price to be paid-loss of French liberty. Louis
becomes an absolute monarchy: there's no check on his authority. In
1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes the Calvinists (Huguenots)
converted, went into exile, or died. Even Catholics were not as
free as they had been: one had to be the right type of Catholic, one
who accepted the authority of the King above even the Pope.
The system Louis created, absolute monarchy, seemed to work well
though. It seemed to solve many of problems France faced.
Was there a better solution? Well, maybe. Next time, we'll
look at England, a country that faced the same kinds of problems, but
solved them very differently.